JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --
They may still be learning how to tie their shoes and memorizing multiplication tables, but a group of students from Bethel Manor Elementary School in Hampton have no problem teaching a robot how to walk.
The Hampton school’s science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, club has blossomed with the support of volunteers from the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s Tidewater chapter, which counts Airmen from Joint Base Langley-Eustis among its members.
What was once seven kids and an 8 feet by 5 feet space in the library is now a dual-room affair with 20 eager students and a plethora of technology.
“The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association and specifically the Tidewater chapter continues to focus on educating young people on STEM,” said Col. Richard Amburn, deputy director of communications at Air Combat Command and president of AFCEA’s Tidewater chapter. “While (AFCEA Tidewater) is made up of many individuals representing different companies and entities, we get a tremendous support from Airmen who want to give back to society and find working with schools like Bethel Manor Elementary extremely rewarding.”
The partnership between AFCEA Tidewater and Bethel Manor Elementary began in 2016, when MSgt Alvin Fua, STEM director for AFCEA Tidewater and boundary protection section chief at the 83rd Network Operations Squadron, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, reached out to Susan Willard, technology education facilitator at Bethel Manor Elementary School, to offer AFCEA’s support with youth STEM programs.
“STEM club has been a huge success at BMES the last three years,” Willard said. “Students have used critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration to program robots to navigate shapes, mazes and obstacle courses.”
The success at Bethel Manor Elementary has inspired AFCEA Tidewater to start implementing STEM programs at other schools in Hampton, such as William Mason Cooper Elementary School, according to Fua.
“We are deeply committed to the local community,” Fua said. “Volunteering for is just one hour a week. I’ve seen people sit on their phone for hours, so you might as well do something productive with that time.”
The program runs for an hour after school, and revolves around small group projects assigned by Willard and her fellow instructor Elizabeth Fike. Students choose their groups based on interest, such as visual graphics, coding, droids and movie production.
The instructors then work with volunteers to assist the students, who end the afternoon by presenting their work.
“Having just two instructors means that volunteers are very valuable,” said Jennifer Lively, AFCEA Tidewater Chapter publicity director and 83rd NOS associate director. “That’s a challenge, since volunteers can come in sporadically.”
One of the biggest positives of the program, according to Lively, is that students have a say in what kind of projects they are working on. If they’re not interested in one kind of project, they can switch to something they are more passionate about.
“It is a program like STEM that can really get them excited about technology and science,” Lively said. “Providing a lasting impact on a student’s technological growth and knowledge; while posturing them for the future.”
This year, among other projects, the students have worked on learning how to control their Dash and Miposaur robots. In addition, 12 students will be participating in the upcoming Great Computer Challenge in categories such as visual programming, video editing, desktop publishing and graphic arts
The Great Computer Challenge is a joint project by WHRO Public Media, the Consortium for Interactive Instruction and Old Dominion University. The May 12 event is an opportunity for students in kindergarten through 12th grade to demonstrate their knowledge of different computer and programming skills.
AFCEA Tidewater will be covering registration fees for all Bethel Manor Elementary School students participating.
“Our goal is to provide insight into these fields to young people who may not normally have opportunity to do so,” Amburn said. “By providing equipment and volunteers, we hope to spark a sense of curiosity and passion so they can continue to develop their own skills.”